Mindful breathing invites ease and freedom into our lives
We are beginning our exploration of the path of mindfulness by diving into the first of the four foundations; the body.
In this Frame, we look at the first part of this foundation; mindfulness of the breath.
The embodied mind
We cannot exist apart from the body – it is the substrate of our human existance. Our somatic experience of the body always takes place in the present moment. When we are mindful, the body and mind are in the same place. For this reason, the practice of bringing awareness to the body provides a portal into mindfulness. It serves as the foundation of the path.
The practice of mindfulness is largely about restoring balance by bringing the mind back home to the body. It is a practice of embodiment – of becoming fully alive as this incarnation of ours.
“So often we’re sitting down in with our mind, not our body. And we have to remember this is an embodied practice. It’s like bringing your mind back into your body rather than trying to lift your body, your experiences, your feelings or emotions back up into some ideal that your mind has sort of created.“– Adyashanti
🔎 DIVE DEEPER:
We will now turn to the breath and return to the role of the body in the next Frame. In the meanwhile, you are invited to dig deeper into the world of somatic meditation: Intro to somatic meditation
The significance of the breath
When we are born, we take our first breath (inspire) – and with our last breath, life withdraws from the body (expire). The same is true for all mammals, birds and reptiles. We can survive for weeks without food, days without water, but only a few minutes without the breath (respire). Think about it. Breath is life.
🔎 DIVE DEEPER:
We will now turn to the breath as it relates to mindfulness meditation. You are invited to dive deeper into the significance of the breath in this Frame: Outer breath, inner breath
There are many schools and styles of meditation, but they all agree on the importance of the breath. The breath is always available as an anchor to enter into the contemplation of the body. The first instruction given by the Buddha is to bring mindfulness to the breath. So how do we do this?
First, it is important to understand that the tendency of the mind to cling to ideas and chase after peaceful states of mind is what gets in the way of meditation. For this reason, mindfulness meditation (vipassanā) does not include breath control.
The breath is the master. By absorbing into the natural flow of the breath, it guides us into increasingly subtle levels of awareness and takes us beyond the ego’s intentions. We do not manipulate or force the breath in any way. We do not absorb into the subtle breath through will or effort, but by applying attentive awareness and curiosity.
This is what it means to practice “bare knowing” – a phrase that the Buddha kept repeating throughout the four foundations. It refers to a simple and direct knowing of what is present without reacting or trying to fix the breath according to some ideal. Bare knowing is to see clearly, to “see into” (the meaning of the Pali word Vipassanā is “insight”).
1: Breathing in, I know I am breathing in; breathing out, I know I am breathing out
We start by sitting down and bringing mindfulness to the breath. We simply watch the inflow and the outflow of the breath, observing how it arises and passes with passive but attentive awareness.
Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.
It is so simple, and yet so powerful. We release everything else and enjoy the simplicity of watching the breath. We allow the natural breath to become the sole focus of our attention. No past, no future, no “shoulds”. Just the breath.
There is great freedom in this. Even short periods of mindful breathing can begin to clear up some space and create clarity of mind.
2: Aware of the full breath
The second instruction is to follow the inbreathe all the way until the end. We bring our full concentration and un-interrupted attention to the full length of the inbreathe. And then following the outbreathe all the way – until it naturally turns into the next inbreathe.
If the breath is deep, I notice it is deep. If the breath is shallow, I notice it is shallow.
Trusting that the body knows how to breath, we learn to follow the flow of the breath. We allow the breath to become the master. In this way, we stay with the “bare knowing” of the breath without trying to control it. This is a very effective way of cultivating concentration and establishing continuity of mindfulness. It is also pleasant – we learn to enjoy the simplicity of sitting and flowing with the cycles of the natural breath.
This process begins to create space in the mind. In this space, there is freedom.
3: Aware of the whole body breathing
The third instruction is to include the entire body in the field of awareness:
Breathing in, I am aware of the whole body. Breath out, I remain aware of the whole body.
Through the breath, we bring awareness to the whole body. In this way, we enter into the somatic field of the body. We experience the body from the inside, bringing the mind back home to the body. With this third exercise, we start seeing the oneness of body and mind (“body-mind”).
4: Allowing the breath to calm the body
As we sit and breathe, we may notice tension and discomfort in the body. As part of the forth instruction on the breath, we use the breath to calm the activity of the body:
Breathing in, calming the body. Breathing out, calming and releasing tension in the body.
We do not try to create a calm state by will or effort. Rather, we trust that by resting with the natural breath, the body will naturally come to relaxation. All we have to do is bring bare knowing to the breath, and the body will begin to settle down – just as dust will settle when the water is undisturbed.
Over time, as the body relaxes, we find more enjoyment in our practice. The mind becomes sharper and more quiet, enabling more subtle awareness of the breath. As we rest with this “inner breath”, our continuity of mindfulness is established (we naturally live from a place of “remembering” our state of being).
Mindfulness of the 4 aspects of breath
Mindfulness of breath, 6 minutes
Preparing the path
This practice of mindful breathing brings stillness, ease and concentration to the body and mind. It also helps us establish mindfulness of the body to the extent necessary for “insight” and “continuous mindfulness”. These are the same qualities needed for the further steps in the contemplating of the body. This is what we will explore in the next Frame.
Take the next step on the path: